depression quest

Celeste Review — The Whiniest Platformer

by Jed Pressgrove

With heavy references to depression and anxiety, Celeste seeks to depict a psychological struggle that many teenagers and adults can identify with. So it’s particularly egregious that developer Matt Thorson decides to infantilize his audience within the first few minutes of the game. As characters talk to each other in the intro, you hear this childish and grating gibberish as a stand-in for actual voice acting, similar to the dialogue in the throwback 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee (another “difficult” game that nonetheless seems like it was made for toddlers). Thorson’s appeal to an unassuming kiddish perspective doesn’t end there: the pixel-art character models speak to blind nostalgia for childhoods spent with 1980s game consoles, as the sprites are ugly (and they only get uglier when the camera zooms in on them for cheesy dramatic effect). This presentation sets the stage for yet another extreme trial-and-error platformer, where it’s not unusual for players to die hundreds of times over the course of one or two levels. As a familiar gauntlet of player error, Celeste hardly resembles a fresh, mature take on tortured life.

In Celeste, you play as a young woman named Madeline who wishes to climb the intimidating Celeste Mountain. It soon becomes apparent that Madeline suffers from some type of mental illness, so her journey up the mountain involves her internal demons as much as it does external obstacles. At first, you only have to worry about jumping, climbing, and dashing around hazards like spikes, but soon a “bad” part of Madeline manifests as a ghost-like copy of herself, and if this apparition touches you, you die.

This mental-health dynamic amounts to a patronizing theme. While IGN’s Tom Marks insists that the game features “important conversations that games don’t often have,” Celeste is one of many recent games that involve depression and/or anxiety (Elude, Depression Quest, Actual Sunlight, The Cat Lady, to name a few). Viewed from a lens that acknowledges this clear trend, Celeste seems like an effort to be fashionably relevant given its lack of insightful handling of the subject matter.

This trendiness comes through in a conversation between Madeline and her friend Theo, an insufferable hipster who won’t shut up about taking selfies (like millennial caricatures, the duo is more interested in themselves than they are in the grandeur of nature). When Madeline has a panic attack at one point, Theo tells her to close her eyes and concentrate on a feather. The player then sees a feather and must manipulate it so that it fits into a box for a period of time. If the player succeeds with this task, Madeline’s panic attack stops. This seconds-long mechanical expression, however, doesn’t capture any recognizable complication of overcoming anxiety, and feathers show up again in the platforming sections of the game as a way to make Madeline fly, trivializing the idea of hard-fought recovery as a generic power-up.

Similarly, the aforementioned “bad” version of Madeline can be written off mechanically as an evil shadow obstacle, reminiscent of Cosmic Mario in Super Mario 3D Land. Other games have attempted and executed far more original and evocative concepts. Though only a text-based game, Depression Quest communicates the effects of depression through dialogue options that won’t work (when selected by the player) due to the protagonist’s state of mind. Even more illustrative is the case of Elude, a platformer that taps into the sinking-down feeling of depression through how the protagonist controls. Celeste, with its tedious emphasis on death and perfunctory item collection, lacks the focus of such efforts.

I could excuse Celeste’s failures and embrace it as a serviceable series of challenges if it weren’t for the whiny tone of its narrative, which can’t be skipped. In later parts of the game, Madeline speaks in an altered form of infantile gibberish when she gets very upset. She sounds like a tiny crying mouse in these segments, underlining Thorson’s pandering to exaggerated millennial fear. In trying to pass off this self-pitying nonsense as cute and edifying, Celeste is an insult.

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Family Matters — The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo

by Jed Pressgrove

To keep you playing, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo dangles multiple endings rather than inspired storytelling. Replaying this game reveals a rigid set of pathways, some of which can only be activated by clicking a single, seemingly arbitrary hyperlink. Unlike Depression Quest, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo doesn’t make a clear statement until you get the last ending, exposing the other endings (and any failed attempts to unlock a different ending) as a horror tease.

If you unlock the major (actual?) ending of The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, the game directs you to its ultimate secret: a series of essays from developer Michael Lutz. Lutz calls these essays “an intended effect of the design,” but they render the game meaningless and vice versa. After the game finally makes its obvious point about the importance of humanity/friendship over product and macho gloating, Lutz muddies the observation with sections such as the following:

What these stories reveal, I think, is an underlying anxiety we have about games in general: that beneath their smiling faces and heroic poses Mario and Link are somehow hostile to us. That if these emblems of childhood and adolescent pleasure had their way, we would keep playing with them until it killed us.

Perhaps here we can find the “pretense of truth” that seemed to otherwise go missing: there is something about games culture, its particular awareness of itself in its own moment of history, that facilitates the experience of horror at the industry’s own promises of endless and repetitive play.

Games, in this perspective, both loathe us, and need us.

Moving past Lutz’s projection about collective anxiety, one might say the repetition within The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo loathes the player. The game, despite its “good” ending, wastes a lot of our time trying to say something. At the very least, the game’s Groundhog Day repetition lacks the sociological purpose of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi. Instead, Lutz’s horror hour appeals to the lowest common denominator with “creepy” whispering from Uncle Boogie Man.

Lutz’s use of family ties hasn’t always been this trivial. Lutz’s previous game, My Father’s Long, Long Legs, appears more cognizant of what its horror in the home might convey. The protagonist’s fear of and disconnection from the patriarch in My Father’s Long, Long Legs are compelling because they illustrate, rather than project, a widespread anxiety within many modern families. In contrast, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo doesn’t seem to consider that its terrible “uncle who comes at midnight” premise can bring to mind the ugly reality of sexual molestation within a family. The familial weirdness in The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo serves zero purpose other than setting up a brand of educated dread that Lutz shares in his concluding essays.

Lutz massively inflates the relevance of his dread. In one essay, he connects the enemy of The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo to the forces that created Gamergate:

When I began drafting this game at the beginning of August 2014 it was not topical beyond a general sense.

But as I write this note, it is the final week of August, and in the month I’ve been at work, the seemingly nebulous concerns I set out to treat — the way the modern games industry encouraged and continues to encourage entire generations of children to internalize hierarchies predicated on structures of access maintained by abusive practices of exclusion, deception, and emotional manipulation — have erupted to the forefront of the “culture” in a way more horrific and absurd than anything I could ever have made up.

We may not believe in the uncle who works for Nintendo anymore, but he is certainly still at work.

Women and minority voices are under attack. The finer details of the situation are, by this point, both fatiguing and immensely abhorrent. I will not bother to recount them here. Suffice it to say: the contingent of players taking up the flag of “gamers” are, in many ways, the realization of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that constitute the “enemy” of this game.

The fantasy underpinning the “happy” ending is that the people trapped in the unhealthy structures cultivated by a combination of late capitalism and videogames can become aware of the way in which they, their friends, in fact the very world around them, are all being devoured alive — and that we can escape it if we work together.

To those women who have been terrorized these past weeks, to those still here and those who had to step away, to those who are doing and who did their best to make sure we get out of this beast before its jaws close on us, if any of you read this, I am sorry, and I thank you.

In reality, Lutz was just lucky that Gamergate happened while he was finishing The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo. With this essay as an “intended effect of the design,” Lutz attempts to make his ideas and game appear more prophetic and sensitive than they actually are. This illusion of relevance conceals a more sobering thought: The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo is, at best, a sorry follow-up to My Father’s Long, Long Legs.